The ‘China story’ is a phrase that has been used in recent years by some Chinese to describe their own experience and feelings about their country as opposed to the perception that Western people and foreigners in general have about China.
In 2016 Twitter hired as its Greater China Managing Director Kathy Chen, a veteran technology executive who used to work for the Chinese government’s security apparatus. “[L]et’s work together to tell great China story to the world!”, was one of her first tweets in her new position, sent out to China’s Central Television.
In a recent article published on ‘Quartz’, Chinese journalist Chen Siyi writes about the “pretty backward” and “dystopian” vision that Westerners have about China. “When people ask me about what life is like in China, what I want is to tell a new kind of story—one that offers context and nuance,” she writes, criticizing Western media’s oversimplifications. “Little about China is black or white. And so, going forward, I’m going to take care to choose stories that reflect the country’s complicated reality.”
“Many Chinese people understand the flaws of their country,” she explains, but “they also want to feel proud of what the country has achieved … Aren’t we tired of the rhetoric that dominates Western narratives about China – and couldn’t we, as a community familiar with the realities of both American and Chinese values and educational systems, change the narrative?”
Chen writes that she is torn between telling the truth and defending her country, and wants to find a middle ground between the “Western narrative” and the reality that ordinary people experience.
There is certainly a lot of truth to Chen’s arguments. No one can say that the media in any country are unbiased, and when it comes to China, it is true that many journalists express critical views and focus on negative stories. However, there is a big problem here.
In a one-party state the government sets the narrative. Chinese people are not allowed to debate freely about who they are and how they feel; they are not free to develop their own identity free from governmental ‘patriotic education’; they are not free to communicate freely to Westerners or write about their own country so that Westerners may understand them.
Let’s draw a comparison. If the Republican Party was the only legal party in the US and Trump was a dictator, what would the ‘American story’ be? And how could people look at the US objectively? The only way to be nuanced is to have a pluralistic public opinion, so that one may understand that there are many competing narratives.
When a country is divided and polarized, like the US, we experience nuance. But when people live in a one-party state and all the positive things they can say about their country is about food or money, but not about larger issues, being nuanced becomes difficult.
“I can please an American audience with a ‘China sucks’ story that confirms their stereotypes; or I can surprise them with a ‘China is awesome’ story because I want to defend my country,” Chen writes. “I can emphasize the sexism that Chinese women still face, or I can play up China’s huge contributions to the world economy.”
It is not surprising that she mentions the economy as something Chinese feel proud of. Everyone knows that. Everyone also knows that Scandinavians are proud off their welfare state and Italians are proud of their architecture. But those things do not make up a ‘narrative’. A ‘narrative’ is built upon larger issues such as: ‘Who are we? What are our values? What are our beliefs?’
When Chinese people express frustration at how their country is perceived, they are doing so on the premise that the China narrative must not touch upon larger issues regarding what China is today. The fact that one party dominates China makes it impossible to tell the good from the bad in the ‘China story’, because the party and the nation have become one and the same. And it is that party which makes it so hard for foreigners to visit, study, work and discuss with locals. There is a wall surrounding China which its government has built to isolate itself from the West.
Journalists would write about China more fairly if they were not frustrated about lack of access to information and about Beijing’s constant pressure to set the narrative for the entire country. If journalists could interview politicians and citizens, request documents from government agencies, and get visas easily, they would be able to report in a different way.
The ‘CCP effect’ is similar to the ‘Trump effect’. Either one wholeheartedly supports those in power and becomes their instrument, or one is naturally inclined to be extremely critical of lack transparency, lies, obfuscations and pressure.
In order for journalists to tell a different China story, and many competing and nuanced China stories, the CCP must first renounce its obsession with setting the narrative, with hiding facts and making communication between China and the world as hard as possible.
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